Explainers

Inside the house of tomorrow: Smart home explained

Take me to 2020!

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Ten years ago, smart homes belonged to the realm of science fiction. Back then, you would only see connected smart devices in TV shows like Black Mirror, rather than in cons and tradeshows.

Today, a connected household isn’t just a working theory; it’s already a reality pushed by the world’s leading tech brands. Common, everyday tasks can now be automated by artificial intelligence or simplified through voice commands.

We are living in a world where every device has a voice, whether it’s Alexa, Siri, Cortana, or the Google Assistant. While some anticipate the curiosities that the future will bring, some fear the rapid changes that a house from the future beckons.

Regardless of how you might feel about the future of futuristic abodes, living in one can still be a mystery, especially for the everyday homeowner. There are layers of tech to wade through. As with every house hunt, it’s time to take a tour of the house of tomorrow before you inevitably live in one.

Garage: letting the right one in

As you pull up into the driveway with your electric car, the garage door automatically opens to the sound of your voice. The lights go on to help you park. You climb out of the car and hook it up to the charging station on the wall.

As you head to the front door, the garage door closes behind you. The smart camera above the door detects who you are and notifies your family that you’ve arrived. The locks disengage, and you enter.

The most common elements of a smart home are those seen from the outside. If you live within a gated community, you’ve seen automatic gates open and close by themselves. You might’ve also seen electric vehicles roaming the streets already. They may be outside the house, but these machines have become essential to the smart home ecosystem. They’ve become extensions of your smart house that you can take with you wherever.

Even as you exit your garage, other smart devices are being fitted around your house. The Nest Cam IQ, for example, is a smart security camera that adds an extra oomph in security. It can record in HD, listen in on conversations, and detect familiar faces.

Having an integrated smart security system allows you to enter and exit your home without fussing with keychains and padlocks.

Living room: command center

Entering your house, you kiss your spouse hello, kick off your shoes, and watch a bit of TV before dinner. Just as you plop down onto your couch, you remember that your house security is still disabled. You ask Alexa to turn it on. You rest easy while watching the latest House of Cards episode.

The evolution of the smart home began in earnest with the living room. As it was the central hub of the entire house, the living room also became the center for the Internet of Things. The new smart home ecosystem coordinated everything from the lights to the TV to the security system — right from the comforts of your sofa.

Who hasn’t heard of a smart TV? The industry’s newest TVs integrate the internet to build a more comprehensive entertainment experience. From a device that connects to mere broadcast stations, the TV evolved to access a vast catalog of online entertainment. You could watch Netflix while searching for your favorite recipes on Google. The smart TV became the desktop of your living room.

As people spent more time interacting with their TVs, smart devices started installing themselves around the luxuries of the living room. While you’re watching a movie, you can change everything from the temperature to the lights without standing up or pausing the programming.

The Philips Hue, for example, takes control of your house’s lighting system. That’s not all. The smart bulb automates your lights’ operation for both when you’re in and out of the house. It can even change a room’s hue to set the mood.

Another example is the Ecobee 3 smart thermostat. The automated system optimizes the temperature based on your activity inside and on the temperature outside. Further, it also makes your energy usage more efficient.

Kitchen: robots get hungry, too

As you open your fridge, a voice lists down the food you have in stock. Knowing how much pasta and olive oil you have left, the voice assistant suggests pesto for dinner. You agree. Alexa, then, preheats the oven for the pasta and preps your dishwasher for the oily dishes later.

Despite the oodles of devices inside a kitchen, tech makers are only starting to optimize the room for the smart home. LG, for example, launched a series of devices that assist you even before you start preparing the dish.

Their smart refrigerator catalogs the supplies you have left. It alerts you when you’re short of ingredients and recommends recipes based on what’s inside. Plus, it even has its own entertainment system to get your groove on while you cook.

After you gather all the ingredients, the system passes the recipe down to the appliances you’ll need. A smart oven preheats to fit the temperature you need; a smart dishwasher customizes its spin cycles to wash dishes optimally.

Bedroom: the last frontier

The day is over. Before you drift off to sleep, you remember to charge your devices — iPhone X, Apple Watch — on the wireless charging stand. You set Google Home to wake you up at 7am by playing a Rihanna song.

The bedroom is the last frontier of the home of tomorrow. The bed is the last sanctuary from a life taken over by tech. That, however, won’t last. As early as now, the Internet of Things follows you even to the bedroom.

Wireless charging stations, smart thermostat panels, and security panels pervade our bedrooms, allowing us easy access to how our house works before we call it a night. A smart bed is still forthcoming, but technology is already reaching out before it inevitably comes.

With Google Home and Amazon Echo, voice assistants now lull us to sleep and wake us up in the morning. Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana will become the first and last voices we hear every day. The eerily human voice assistants have already lent their voices to every device in our home.

It’s only a matter of time before our house becomes a machine itself. Whether you embrace the future or shun it, technology will always find a way to make our lives easier. But don’t worry when it comes. All you’ll hear is the soothing voice of Alexa, asking how you want your meat cooked.

Illustrations by MJ Jucutan

Explainers

The new online generation: Explaining 5G internet

Faster, better, and more available?

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Are you still bothered by slow internet in your country? Even with the advancements and supposed improvements in infrastructure, we’re all living in a 4G world. The current generation of internet connectivity is still present in today’s mobile and telecommunication networks. But now, a new generation has emerged, and it has the potential of taking the whole world by storm.

Let’s stop and ask first: What really is this new generation? How different is it from the existing generation’s internet? And, what needs to be done to welcome the change?

What really is 5G?

5G is the new generation we’re speaking of here. Specifically, it’s the next level of mobile network connectivity being rolled out at the moment. What 5G offers to everyone is pretty straightforward: faster internet speeds, close to zero latency, and improved accessibility. It’s expected that 5G will replace existing 4G technology once fully deployed in the near future.

Currently, 5G is still in its early stages of deployment — much like an early-access game. Companies are given plenty of time to integrate the 5G connectivity interface on their devices, or at least until March 2019. Once the initial deployment is done, 5G will be available in more devices, whether it’s your phone or your smart device.

A connection that comes in waves

Remember that one science class you had about the electromagnetic spectrum and visible light? Basically, devices that emit electromagnetic waves fall under a spectrum depending on their frequencies and wavelengths. For most network connections, their waves follow a similar concept, with 4G found on the leftmost and 5G in the middle.

There are two ways that 5G can work in any place at any time, and one of them includes waves. This strand of 5G is called the millimeter wave (mmWave), and is currently present in most research facilities and military devices. With mmWave, 5G connections are ideally faster (peaking at 10Gbps) and provide lag-free services because it adds additional bandwidth for devices to use. Although, it is held back by obstacles such as walls and floors that just bounce the signal off.

The second way is through a sub-6GHz spectrum. Unlike mmWave, the sub-6GHz spectrum is more of a middle-of-the-pack approach to 5G connectivity. Basically, 5G signals will strengthen connections that currently exist in the world like 3G and 4G. This is mostly because 3G (2.4GHz) and 4G (5GHz) fall under the 6GHz limit. This method is the more cost-effective approach, and it doesn’t easily experience interference.

How different is it really from 4G?

We always talk about how 5G is faster than 4G in terms of data transfer, which is true. But, there are other things that differentiate 5G from its predecessor. For starters, 5G connections can cover a wider area than 4G. This means that even if you’re far from your router or cell tower, you can still access 5G networks at the same speed. Just don’t be too far away, as the technology isn’t capable of reaching that far yet.

Apart from that, 5G is less prone to interference compared to 4G networks. Even if mmWave is hampered with the presence of obstacles, it still doesn’t stop it from performing relatively better than 4G. For example, even if there were several other antennas in your area, you still experience better speeds while on a 5G network compared to 4G. 5G targets devices directly, instead of spreading the waves across the whole area.

Finally, with 5G connections, more devices have access to the network. Currently, 4G networks still have a cap when it comes to the number of devices simultaneously connected. As more devices connect to the same 4G network, internet speeds tend to get slower. With 5G, however, adding more devices won’t hamper its overall performance mostly because of additional bandwidth and wider coverage.

What’s next for the new generation?

Believe it or not: We’re living in the early-access world of 5G. We hear about major telecommunication companies starting to adopt 5G in their mobile networks, and things are about to get bigger. While their data plans are available to the general public, several improvements to network infrastructure are to follow. We’re talking better signal towers, and more of them across the world.

In the future, 5G may not be limited to just mobile networks. Car companies are looking at the possibility of applying 5G to smart cars, especially for navigation. Cars on the road will be able to share data like traffic situation, road hazards, and other delays. Even things like virtual and augmented reality can make use of 5G for better simulations.

By March 2019, the early deployment of 5G will be finished. Hopefully by then, we can get more information on what 5G can do for the world. The new generation is here, but we still have to wait and see how far 5G will take us.

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C is the key: Explaining USB Type-C

What really makes this new standard special

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For years, people have grown accustomed to using USB ports for almost all of their devices. Whether you need to charge your phone using your computer or use a controller to play games, you can always count on a USB port to be readily available for you. But 2018 was the year of change and innovation, and the USB port you know and love welcomed change in a big way.

Introducing: USB Type-C, the newest port added to the family. Its round shape brought many new uses and functionalities to your ports. But, how different is it from its much older brothers? How have companies revolutionized its use in mainstream devices?

What is this USB Type-C port?

The USB Type-C (USB-C) port is a not-so-recent discovery in the world of tech. The USB Implementers Forum (USB-IF) developed this USB port back in 2013, and launched it into mass production the following year. The connector is a reversible oval shape, much different from the usual rectangular shape of the previous generation. Its reversibility allows any orientation of the cable for transferring files or charging your device.

USB-IF developed USB-C following the USB 3.1 standard. Such a standard was particularly used because of its faster transfer speeds and charging capabilities. With a USB-C port, you can transfer an hour-long movie in less than 30 seconds, provided you have the appropriate connector for it.

Computer and smartphone manufacturers have incorporated the USB-C port in most of their devices. One of the early adopters of the new technology was Apple, with their redesigned 12-inch MacBook in 2015. Other computer manufacturers followed in the later years, especially with the release of the Thunderbolt 3 technology used for gaming machines.

It’s the younger, faster and more all-around sibling

USB-C has been around for the past four years, and it has gradually developed into an all-around port for users. Alongside Thunderbolt 3, the USB-C port posts the highest data transfer speed across all the available USB connections in existence. Not only that, USB-C ports these days can now connect your devices to external GPUs and displays, and charge your devices. Most USB-C ports even support fast charging for smartphones.

While the technology behind it is supported by a USB 3.1 standard, it’s still very much different from other USB ports that use the USB 3.1 protocol. For starters, the USB 3.1 standard found in USB-C ports are USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports, which offer twice as much performance in data transfer as USB 3.1 Gen 1 ports. Most of the Gen 1 ports also use an older USB Type-A standard, which works for most of your gadgets and peripherals today. However, you would need more adapters for other functionalities, like displaying to a monitor.

But the USB-C port is a far cry from the old USB 2.0 and 3.0 protocols, which have been in existence for 14 years (and counting). Data transfer speeds for those two protocols are significantly slower compared to the USB-C port. An hour-long movie would ideally take around one to two minutes on a USB 2.0 port. Also, older USB protocols don’t really allow you to power up devices that need more electricity. So, charging devices on them might not be as fast.

Supercharged with Thunderbolt 3

So, you’re probably wondering what really makes a USB-C port just that fast. It’s not so much that it’s round, or that it’s new; rather, it’s the technology inside it. Late 2015 saw the arrival of the new Thunderbolt 3 standard specifically for USB-C ports. It first started out in most Windows laptops before making it to the 2016 MacBook Pro and several gaming motherboards.

What Thunderbolt 3 does for USB-C ports is to significantly increase its capacity and capabilities by a mile. We’re talking faster file transfer, heightened gaming experiences, and being able to plug in 4K displays for clearer images. Thunderbolt 3 also allows much bigger devices to be charged at a controlled rate. This is mostly evident with the MacBook Pro, several high-end Ultrabooks, and most recently, the 2018 iPad Pro.

The charging capacity brought about by Thunderbolt 3 deals with a tweak to how USB power delivery works. USB power delivery standards state that each USB standard has specific conditions that must be met to power up devices. Early versions of USB ports only allow a small amount of electricity (2.5W) for delivery, while USB-C allows for the full 100W.  Basically, you went from just powering up your mouse and keyboard to charging your entire laptop.

What’s to come for USB-C?

At this point in time, you’re already living in the future that the USB-C port hopes to achieve. Suddenly, you can simply bring a USB-C cable around, plug it into a powerbank, and you can already charge your expensive MacBook. More and more devices are starting to adopt USB-C because of its potential to enhance your tech experience as a whole.

However, people still find it difficult to switch to USB-C, and for good reason. Most devices continue to use a USB Type-A or micro-USB connector, especially gaming controllers and peripherals. Also, they can argue that the old ports are more accessible. In a not-so-distant future, using a USB-C port could potentially replace a phone’s headphone jack.

The future of USB-C is still uncertain. Companies will iron out the new technology more so it can become mainstream for the future. Let’s just hope that by the time that happens, there won’t be a USB Type-D yet.

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No more cords: Wireless charging explained

More and more things are going wireless

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A lot of things have gone wireless over the past few years. From internet connections to gaming with your friends, the world is becoming more accessible without the need for physical wires. Over the course of 2018, another aspect of our lives has gone this route: charging one’s device.

Perhaps you’ve already heard of wireless charging and its presence in today’s smartphones, particularly the latest Apple devices. You may have even owned something that could wirelessly charge devices. But, what is wireless charging all about?

Let’s break down the technicalities

Wireless charging is a highly technical concept in the world of electronics. Basically, the way it works is that your charging pad contains coils that give off electromagnetic fields. These fields carry energy with them, which can be converted into electricity to power up the compatible device when placed on the pad. 

There are two ways devices can wirelessly charge: inductive charging and resonance charging. Inductive charging is mostly present in low-power charging devices, or ones that require less electricity to power up. This form is limited in range, to the point that the only way your phone charges is if it’s on the pad. Resonance charging, on the other hand, maximizes the range but lessens the amount of charge transferred.

Induction charging

Within the last ten years, several non-profit organizations have created and set wireless charging standards for companies to follow. The most popular of which is the Qi standard established in 2008 by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). Other standards include the Power Matters Alliance (PMA) standard in 2012, and Rezence by Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) from 2012 to 2015.

All about that Qi

As mentioned earlier, the Qi standard is the most popular wireless charging standard in the world. Most of today’s smartphones and peripherals are supported by Qi. It was established in 2008, with smartphones first adopting it in 2012 through the Nokia Lumia 920.

Qi focuses primarily on energy regulation. Most charging pads that use this standard work with flat surfaces for better energy distribution. Chargers with the Qi standard regulate the amount of charge they give to devices, and immediately go on standby once full. These chargers only activate once a device is placed on top, saving on the cost of electricity in the process.

Magnetic resonance charging

Most smartphone companies have made the choice to implement the Qi standard in their latest models. Apart from Nokia, companies like LG and Samsung have adopted it beginning with the LG Nexus 4 and Samsung Galaxy S6, respectively. In 2017, Apple accepted the standard with the release of their iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus, and iPhone X. The company also planned a charging mat called AirPower that could charge multiple devices all at once, but it has yet to be launched.

Why do most companies prefer Qi, but some don’t?

The goal of the WPC is to put forward one standard for wireless charging in the world. The organization developed the Qi standard in such a way that companies are able to integrate them into their products seamlessly. It’s because of this standard that smartphones are aligned to wireless charging pads through magnets for better charging capacity.

Apart from that, the Qi standard allows for more intelligent control over charging your phone. It can tell if your phone is fully charged and will stop sending electricity to avoid overdoing it. Of course, you’ll be able to maximize the charging capacity of your Qi wireless charger if you’re only charging one device at a time.

Wireless charges for the Razer Phone 2, Google Pixel 3, and Xiaomi Mi Mix 3

However, some companies recognize that most people own several smart devices. This is where other organizations like Power Matters Alliance come in. PMA initially used inductive charging as their base for wireless charging, which is what Qi uses, as well. Now, that same organization was able to look into resonance charging, which removes the limitation Qi has.

That’s one of the reasons why Samsung, for example, incorporated both Qi and PMA standards into their Samsung Galaxy S6. With resonance charging, devices can be charged a few centimeters away from the pad. This is especially good for people who use their phones while charging. While WPC is looking to incorporate resonance charging into Qi, certain factors and compatibility issues with devices make the standard less effective.

What does the future hold for wireless charging?

With all the talk about standards and devices, there’s no denying that wireless charging is here to stay. There are talks between the WPC and PMA on possibly coming up with just one true standard for all companies to follow. The best part is that it doesn’t stop there.

Both organizations are looking to expand their technologies beyond smartphones and consumer devices. WPC has already done so with furniture retailers like IKEA to apply wireless charging peripherals to office tables and couches. Meanwhile, PMA is looking to introduce wireless charging to restaurants and establishments, like McDonald’s and Starbucks with wireless-charging tables. It even reached a point wherein tech startups are developing their own hardware for wireless charging from longer distances.

It’s safe to say that the future is definitely bright for wireless charging. Whether companies will start making it a must-have feature for all their products remains to be seen.

Illustrations by MJ Jucutan

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